What “Bachelor in Paradise” Can Teach us About Empowering the Disability Community

Are you a fan of “Bachelor in Paradise?” Whether you realize it or not, this season of the “Bachelor” franchise spinoff took on the topic of disability empowerment. Which is not exactly an expected topic for mainstream television. For years, the “Bachelor” series has been criticized for featuring primarily White contestants, and has worked to diversify the races and ethnicities of the people they draw on the show. But what about people from the disability community or people who identify as Deaf or hard-of-hearing?

Being disabled or Deaf or hard of hearing are also social identities in American culture – identities that should not be overlooked in the show’s representation. These communities represent what some refer to as the largest minority community in the United States at 26 percent of the U.S. population according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the following, we’ll discuss more about why this year’s “Bachelor in Paradise” was so significant and what that may mean for social workers.

Introducing Abigail

A few years ago, we did have Sarah Herron on the show, a woman with a physical disability, although her presence was short-lived. But this season, the very first person down the stairs to the Mexican beachfront hacienda was Abigail Heringer, a 26 year-old woman who identifies as Deaf due to congenital hearing loss from birth. She received cochlear implants at the age of two but does consider herself disabled due to her hearing impairment and loss. Abigail was a central figure in this summer’s Bachelor in Paradise due to her romance with Noah Erb.

It was refreshing to see a disabled person in a romantic relationship given the history our culture has of thinking that disabled folks are asexual, incapable of having sex or in need of being protected from any kind of sexual contact. Abigail and Noah’s relationship has played out on television screens across Bachelor Nation – from their devastating breakup at the show’s conclusion to their rekindled romance announced subtly on social media later. This demonstrates that members of the disability community have relationships too, and that this is 100% normative behavior, with breakups, glitches, awkwardness, kissing and all!

The Dignity of Risk

So how does this relate to social work practice? One of the central tenets of good disability social work is how we need to honor the concept of the dignity of risk. This is the idea that everyone can learn from everyday risks. Central to honoring the dignity of risk is respecting an individual’s autonomy and self-determination to make choices. Also important, is the right for our clients to make choices even if social workers or other professionals in the person’s life feel that they could endanger the decision-maker in question. In order to respect a person’s dignity of risk, one should provide intermittent support even if others do not approve of the choice.

As there is inherent dignity in the experience of everyday risk, this concept suggests that limiting a disabled person’s ability to make even a risky choice, or limiting their access to the learning that comes along with a potentially emotionally painful risk, such as dating, does not foster overall wellness in the long run. Abigail, from this year’s “Bachelor in Paradise” is a wonderful example of the kind of empowerment needed, rather than sheltering one from risks in life.

Robert Perske famously wrote:

“Overprotection may appear on the surface to be kind, but it can be really evil. An oversupply can smother people emotionally, squeeze the life out of their hopes and expectations, and strip them of their dignity. Overprotection can keep people from becoming all they could become…”

Arguably, the dignity of risk may be among the most challenging tenets for social workers to embrace in their practice, but it is vital to accept given its intersection with self-determination. The dignity of risk also involves learning about the part of life that involves sexual and romantic relationships. Social workers need to remember to talk to their clients about sexuality in a developmentally appropriate manner. It is important not to cut off conversations about this topic, or to skirt the subject when it comes up. We must also support our clients in exploring how to engage in healthy relationships when they have the opportunities to be in them.

It’s wonderful that Abigail Heringer can be a model in reminding us of this important lesson for empowerment-oriented disability social work. One that embraces the dignity of risk for those who wish to date! With that being said, here’s to Noah and Abigail’s relationship!

On Stacking Books in the Library, and Undoing My Own Ableism

My first job right out of high school was working in a public library. I was one of three library pages who would put books away in order to maintain the bookshelves. A majority of the library staff watched me grow up in that building, and I was given my first opportunity at an internship the year before. I was very bonded to the staff and to the building itself. Working there reminded me a great deal of my childhood.

“Violet” was one of the book pages I worked alongside. For as long as I can remember, she had always worked at the library, it was almost as if she came with the building. Violet retired the year the building was given a grant to be rebuilt, which I always found to be appropriate timing. As a child, I could always count on Violet to be in the fiction section of the library.

Walking in, I knew I would find her pursing her lips and mumbling to herself while she put the cart of books away. Typically, she would stop me, and let me know I looked just like my mother and would then ask after her, right before complimenting me for the season I reminded her of, Autumn. By the time I began to work at the library, Violet was an elderly woman. She would come into the library every morning at 8:45 a.m. with fifteen minutes to spare, so she could sit on the ratty old orange couch in the staff lounge for ten minutes and then spend the last five minutes greeting staff as they came in before getting to her book cart.

Violet was meticulous at keeping time and budgeted herself to shelving two carts for the three hours she would work every day. Some days she was overly ambitious and was able to complete two and a half carts, but that was rare. Once she finished her shift she would grab her things from the staff lounge and go home. Later I learned Violet had a schedule she followed daily, consisting of breakfast at the Tea Cup Café, a walk to work, completion of her shift and then a return to the Tea Cup Café before going home. She lived alone and had a visiting nurse who would come to her home twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Once I had gotten really efficient at keeping my shelves well maintained, I would go down and help Violet with her books. At this point, I was shelving three to four carts an hour. Many times, I would put Violet’s books in alphabetical order for her on the cart so all she had to do was shelve while I walked around after her and fixed her shelves to make them look as “fronted and faced” as mine.

After several weeks of doing this, I was taken aside by my supervisor and asked that I not help Violet because Violet was capable of doing her own work and she took the time she did because she had schizophrenia. I was not aware of this, and always felt I was doing what was “right” because Violet was elderly and honestly, seemed to me to present as not very aware of her surroundings. It wasn’t until I was told of Violet having a diagnosis of schizophrenia that I realized why she presented the way she did.

I learned later on that she had been institutionalized for many years as a young woman until her brother and sister were old enough to discharge her from the facility she was in. Violet came from a time where health practitioners believed it was best to lock away persons with disabilities and forget them. This process is consistent with the manifestation of oppression through what is referred to by disability advocates as ‘containment.’ Society would rather hide Violet away than have her become a productive member of society or teach her skills because her life was less valuable than that of a person without a disability.

Violet and I never discussed her past or her diagnoses for the four years she and I worked together. After learning of Violet’s diagnosis, I realized I had been practicing ableism by doing her work for her and immediately stopped. I was not allowing Violet to do the work she was capable of because I assumed she couldn’t do it. Following this incident, I learned to ask before assisting her because I wanted to ensure I was respecting her ability to work at her own pace and do what she had been doing for thirty plus years.

The irony of it all is my brother has schizophrenia and it wasn’t until I met Violet. that I realized the importance and effectiveness of a routine but also, knowing Violate gave me hope that my brother might someday find himself in a similar position where he could function independently from my parent’s care.

The last year I worked at the library, Violet could no longer live independently due to needing around the clock assistance and eventually moved to a nursing home where she passed away some years ago. Every so often I visit the library and think of the woman who taught me about resiliency but also gave me a perspective that I keep with me always.

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